Grit Lemke is a journalist, film critic and former head of Germany’s premier documentary film festival DOK Leipzig. Gundermann Revier (Coal Country Song) is her directorial debut and a very personal portrait of the outspoken musician Gerhard Gundermann, the singer-songwriter who died in 1998.
What was it about Gundermann that inspired you to make this documentary?
He was a close friend of mine. We grew up together, so you could say he was always inspiring me, from my earliest childhood. He was my cousin’s classmate and then he worked in the factory where my mother was employed, and I grew up with daily anecdotes about what kind of trouble Gundermann was in again! When I was 15, we became friends and we stayed friends until the day he died. The producer of the film told me he was about to make a documentary about Gundermann. I told him about my friendship with him, and eventually I became the director, even though I never attended film school!
How was the transition from being the former head curator of DOK Liepzig to director?
I made some short films when I was young, before becoming curator at DOK Leipzig, but nothing linked to what I’d call directing. I’m originally an anthropologist, so this was my connection to filmmaking. On this project, I went from being an advisor to a co-author, to a co-director, and then it became obvious that it was my story to tell.
There’s a palpably personal feel to this documentary…
From the beginning, it was clear that we were going to do an artistic documentary as opposed to documentation, and I didn’t want to tell Gundermann’s biography for the umpteenth time. I was just interested in telling the story of the “skipped generation”, this East German generation that never got into power.
How do you tell that story without falling into what some might reductively call ‘Ostalgie’?
I’m not a huge fan of the term ‘Ostalgie’ because it’s so ambiguous. Of course, on one hand there is still this longing for a better society, this utopia. And I wanted to say that it started very well – our parents wanted to build a better society, but it failed. And that’s the other side – this sorrow and bitterness linked to failure. My personal feeling is one of tremendous loss.
There was a film by Andreas Dresen two years ago about Gundermann, which was met with great acclaim. What is it, in your opinion, that keeps this character in the spotlight?
I talked to a journalist and she was thinking about who is comparable to Gundermann today, and she said Greta Thunberg! I started to think about it and realised she’s completely right – both are people who don’t care about what others say. Normally, we are always concerned about other people’s reactions, whether they like us or not. And Gundermann didn’t have this kind of filter when he spoke. He spoke out in a brave way, and he never made any kind of compromises. And now everybody loves him, but back then, it was more a matter of love and hate.
What is your opinion regarding the current state of documentary filmmaking?
I think it was on the rise and there was what many called the ‘golden age’ of documentary, which started with Michael Moore and Wim Wenders’ Buena Vista Social Club, which made people aware that documentaries were artistic and could be shown in theatres. Now, in Germany the problem is that you can only get film funding if you release the film in theatres. But there are many films that are much better for TV, for instance.
Regarding the Berlinale, do you get the impression that documentaries are championed enough?
There’s always room for improvement! I just wonder why documentaries can’t be a regular part of the competition. They did it one time, with Fuocoammare (Fire At Sea) in 2016, but it should be more regular. And one other problem I see, that’s not just with the Berlinale, is how German film prizes and the Oscars have the category ‘Best Documentary’, which is removed from ‘Best Film’ or other categories like ‘Best Editing’ or ‘Best Director’. Documentaries are directed as well! These categories shouldn’t just be for fiction films. It’s like a documentary ghetto, and this needs to change.